Tuesday, November 11, 2014

On Pensions and Patriotism?

Campbell Clark of the Globe and Mail reports, Veterans’ complaints a tricky issue for Harper:
When Prime Minister Stephen Harper attends Remembrance Day ceremonies Tuesday, he will have cut short his attendance at an international summit in China to pay tribute. Yet for an increasingly vocal set of this nation’s veterans, he is guilty of paying too little attention to those who served.

His government has lionized Canadian military symbols, and sent equipment to troops in Afghanistan. Many Conservative MPs care; many see veterans as part of their natural constituency. So why did Mr. Harper’s government become a target for veterans? How did its image instead become Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino lecturing a medal-wearing vet not to point his finger, or dodging a veteran’s wife?

The answer depends on whom you ask – and that’s perhaps how things went wrong.

Many veterans say they don’t have big complaints. But a minority, notably among those with serious injuries – often newer veterans clashing with the Veterans Affairs bureaucracy – feel mistreated. And there’s a new crop of vocal advocates, too, who often think the big traditional groups like the Royal Canadian Legion, are not speaking out for seriously injured vets. The new breed are far more blunt.

Mike Blais, of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, regularly blasts the government on TV. Injured Afghan vets formed Equitas to sue the government for “arbitrary, substandard, and inadequate” benefits. Mr. Fantino meets many of them, but Don Leonardo, who founded Veterans Canada, doesn’t see much point any more. “It’s nice to talk. But show me some action,” Mr. Leonardo said.

Mr. Fantino’s office didn’t act on requests to interview the minister or a government spokesman on the issue. But inside the government, officials suggest the complaints are exaggerated, and promoted by a small group of activists. Budgets have gone up, they note, and in fact, during Mr. Harper’s tenure, spending on Veterans Affairs has increased at about the same rate as overall government spending. But there’s little doubt it has become a tricky issue.

This year’s Remembrance Day has become a particularly top-of-mind memorial after the Ottawa shootings and the death of Corporal Nathan Cirillo as he guarded the National War Memorial. This government wants it that way, and wants to be associated with the country’s military community.

Now, Mr. Harper’s government has appointed a Mr. Fix-It in the form of the country’s former Chief of Defence Staff, retired General Walter Natynczyk. He has stature in Ottawa, credibility with the military community and was part of Afghanistan-war-era efforts to expand support programs for military families.

That could be critical, because the experience of injured Afghanistan vets has certainly fuelled current criticism.

As troops in 2008 or 2009, many felt support from the public. But those who are injured go from being “members” of the Forces to “clients” of Veterans Affairs. Forces’ members go through a medical board when they’re released because of an injury, then a new one when they apply to Veterans Affairs, Mr. Leonardo said.

The case workers at Veterans Affairs Canada care, he said. “It’s not the front line. They’re the most caring people in the world. The problem is the policies, the bureaucracy at the top, the funding.”

Much of the anger grew from the New Veterans Charter, put forward by Paul Martin’s Liberals and tweaked by Mr. Harper’s Conservatives. It was supposed to be a new deal, but sparked complaints, particularly about lump-sum settlements injured vets received instead of pensions.

Part of the problem for the government is that different veterans advocates propose different prescriptions for change to a complex system. But many say they’re frustrated that oft-repeated consensus recommendations – such as increasing the earning-loss benefits, and paying reservists the same level of injury benefits as regular-force soldiers – have languished.

The Commons veterans affairs committee repeated those again this year, but the government’s response doesn’t say what it will do about them or when. The government did promise to phase in several changes, such as ensuring Forces’ members have a Veterans Affairs case manager before they are released, but couched many of their promises to act in thick bafflegab.

Pat Stogran, the retired colonel who served as the first Veterans Ombudsman from 2007 to 2010, said the problem, in his view, stems from the fact that senior bureaucrats run Veterans Affairs like an insurance company, “just trying to write these people off as an industrial accident,” rather than an agency to help vets, he said.

And the politicians don’t have a lot of drive to delve through the bureaucracy. Veterans Affairs ministers don’t have much power, he said. They usually don’t argue with their bureaucrats’ assessment, they are concerned mainly with party politics. “They’re really non-players in this. They’re fighting the opposition,” he said.

It also seems possible that the fact that complaints come from a minority of veterans with problem cases, the government accepts the idea that, for the most part, things are okay.

Mr. Stogran said it’s not all vets who feel unfairly treated. Most leave to go on with their lives. The hard cases, and complaints, come among the disadvantaged after being put in harm’s way. “No, it’s not the majority. It’s the ones who are injured, or have a close affinity to them.”
True, not all vets feel unfairly treated, but those that do are right to be hopping mad. Peter Rusland of Cowichan News reports, War vets still fighting for pensions, care, counselling:
Canada's proud military service remains largely based on patriotism, not pensions.

Cowichan's veterans are among those fighting for long-term remuneration and care, especially for the wounded.

Their frustration is reflected in a chain email circulating among folks such as retired Canadian Navy veteran Winston Teague, of the Malahat Legion.

That email basically demands pensions, medical care and other benefits for Canadian, British, Australian and American vets, of all ages and theatres, who risked their lives in battle.

The trick is finding fair levels of pension compensation and care through Veterans Affairs Canada.

Reaching that balance is a vitally important mission to Teague, and Cowichan's NDP MP Jean Crowder.

Vets of the Second World War, Korea, Cyprus, Egypt, Afghanistan, and other Canadian campaigns, basically get medical care, plus federal Old Age Security and Canada Pension Plan cheques at age 65.

Vets such as Teague, 73, also receive a military pension based on years served.

But long-term Veterans Affairs Canada pensions are slim to nothing, unless vets served 10 years or more, he explained.

"I don't get anything from VA because my (military) pension (income) is too high — but I'm insulted about (VA provisions) for guys who fought in World War Two, Korea, and Afghanistan.

"I did 33 years in the Navy, so I get 66% of my military pension.

"The maximum you can get in a military pension is 70% of what you earned in the service during your last (or best) six years."

But many Canadians under fire served far less time than Teague. And there's the rub.

Teague is appalled how WW2 vets got medical coverage and a handshake; Korea vets got small VA pensions; Cyprus and Egypt vets got pensions based on half of their best six years pay, upon retirement, under a 25-year military program.

Current Middle East vets may get that same half-pension, but those wounded or released may not have served long enough to get anything from VA.

Instead, they receive lump sums based on pay contributions made overseas. The system outrages Teague.

"Without 10 years of service, it's the responsibility of the military to develop a plan for these Afghanistan and Iraq vets. Give them a pension based on at least half the income from the years they served," he suggested.

Crowder explained it's not that easy. The compensation package must be decided in conjunction with vets and their organizations, she suggested.

"You have different (military) classes, and pay structures so it's not a straightforward matter — but there needs to be some way of ensuring their service is respected," she told the News Leader Pictorial from Ottawa.

Pensions aside, Teague wants our war vets — many with PTSD and lost limbs — debriefed and retrained, through counselling, for civilian life, if possible.

He figured there are "at least a couple of hundred thousand Canadian vets in total."

"From discussions with veterans about the new and old military, there's a huge disagreement about (pensions, care, counselling) with (prime minster) Harper and his (Conservative) party — particularly his VA minister (Julian Fantino)," Teague fumed.

"He's an embarrassment to the country, and to our military."

Crowder said the feds must create a fair compensation plan.

"That hasn't happened. Every government sets priorities as to where their spending goes, and this isn't a (Tory) priority. "Veterans are entitled to other benefits, and our experience is they have to fight tooth and nail, and endless delays, to get hearing aids, wheelchairs and other benefits — every roadblock imaginable is put up."

Hopping through bureaucratic hoops isn't often possible as VA offices close, explained Teague.

"If someone already has medical issues, they're not well positioned to take on the government, and some vets don't go to the Legion," noted Crowder.

"If you ask people to serve their country, you need to be prepared to look after them when they come home."

Teague agreed.

"Pay attention to your veterans, listen to your Legions, and to veterans' advocacy groups," he urged Harper's feds.

"People we have left from World War Two reduces every week. An additional $500 a month would just be a new light in their lives.

"Ottawa has put us in total disregard; we're down around the dog level."
Quite frankly, I don't understand any policy that penalizes veterans that sustained injuries during their service. It's just plain stupid and the federal government should fix this mistake once and for all.

In the United States, Michael Virtanen of the Associated Press reports, Cuomo vetoes bill for veterans' pension credits:
Heading into Veterans Day, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has vetoed legislation that would have authorized state and municipal pension credits for peacetime military service.

The legislation authored by Sen. William Larkin, a Hudson Valley Republican and combat veteran of World War II, would amend current law that provides up to three years' credit toward public employee pensions for military service during hostilities. Veterans would have to pay 3 percent of their compensation during those military years to the retirement system.

In his veto message Friday, Cuomo said it's an unfunded mandate on local governments that would incur $57 million in near-term obligations while ignoring recently enacted pension reforms. The measure would apply to every past member of the armed forces who is a member of any public employees' retirement system.

"If enacted, this bill would run roughshod over systemic reforms carefully negotiated with the Legislature to avoid saddling local property taxpayers with additional, unmanageable burdens," Cuomo wrote. He noted that the state associations of counties and mayors and the New York City mayor's office all voiced opposition.

A memo from Mayor Bill de Blasio said it would cost the city about $18 million a year and that a police officer with 17 years of service could qualify for 20-year retirement.

The Assembly passed the bill 133-1 on the last day of the legislative session in June.

Assembly sponsors said the U.S. now depends on a volunteer military, and to encourage citizens to join, the state needs to recognize all veterans by giving them pension access.

"Our veterans deserve this legislation," Larkin said in a statement when the legislation was sent to Cuomo two weeks ago. "It fixes a loophole that has excluded countless servicemen and women who served honorably. This has been especially difficult for women veterans who have not had the opportunity to serve in combat positions and have been excluded from many of the previous service credit bills."

Larkin said Monday he was extremely disappointed and would meet with staff to determine the best way to go forward. He questioned the administration's $57 million estimate, saying the cost would be far less.

Meanwhile, Cuomo signed legislation to increase the property tax exemption for veterans from $5,000 to $7,500 of assessed value and to establish a homeless veterans assistance fund authorizing gifts through a state income tax check-off. Another signed bill provides retirement credits to New York City workers called to active military duty between Sept. 11, 2001, and Jan. 1, 2006. A similar measure already applies to state workers.
I understand why Governor Cuomo vetoed this bill but agree with Larkin, the right thing to do would have been to fix the loophole and include servicemen and women who served honorably.

My grandfather, after whom I was named, left Crete at the age of 16 to go live in Cedar Rapids, Iowa where he had relatives. He fought for the United States Army in World War I and received a pension for his service. My dad showed me his caps which he proudly kept. The bottom green one was his combat cap and the other blue one was his veterans cap from his veterans office in Argo, Illinois where he lived a few years after the war before returning to Crete where he married my grandmother and lived the rest of his life (click on image):


My dad also shared a story with me. When my grandfather and his fellow soldiers arrived in Europe to fight, they were all starving. As they sat there waiting for food, a German sniper shot his regiment leader right in the forehead. Terrified, they quickly scrambled and started fighting, forgetting all about their hunger.

I can share something else with you. My grandmother in Crete received my grandfather's pension benefits well after he died. She was always very grateful for that pension and spoke very highly of the U.S. Army and how well it treated its vets.

Unfortunately, times have changed. Below, Scott Pelley of CBS 60 Minutes profiles Robert McDonald, the new Secretary of Veterans Affairs. McDonald told Pelley about his personal mission to reorganize the troubled agency for his fellow vets and how they need many physicians, especially psychiatrists.

Also, Steve Schwarzman, chairman and chief executive officer at Blackstone, talks about Blackstone’s commitment to hiring 50,000 veterans by 2018 and the government’s push to get the business community more involved in the employment of veterans. He speaks with Stephanie Ruhle on “Market Makers.”

That's a great interview and you should listen carefully to Schwarzman's remarks because he understands the plight of veterans and the importance of diversity in the workplace.

Finally, if you haven't done so, please take the time to donate to the Stand on Guard Fund organized for the families of Nathan Cirillo and Patrice Vincent, the two Canadian servicemen who were murdered recently. Also, take the time to listen to Patrice Vincent's sister mourn the loss of a hero. We should all heed her message.

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